Rights groups are raising concerns about the lack of due process for hundreds of suspected IS fighters in Iraqi prisons as Baghdad this week condemned six French Islamic State members to death.
An Iraqi court on Tuesday issued capital punishment to two French nationals who were found guilty of membership in the IS terror group. Another four French former jihadists were sentenced to death earlier this week.
London-based human rights organization Amnesty International charged it was "extremely concerned" the process could be used as retribution rather than justice for about 20,000 Iraqis and foreign nationals held in Iraq and awaiting trial on charges of committing crimes on behalf of IS and other jihadist groups.
"We're very concerned about the sheer number of people that have been arrested and detained by Iraqi authorities and certainly the rapid movement of the judicial system in just trying them, and in many cases sentencing them," Philippe Nassif, the Middle East and North Africa advocacy director at Amnesty International, told VOA in a telephone interview. "Several thousands of them have been sentenced to death. That's a really big concern."
Nassif said the unwillingness of countries to take back their citizens who joined IS and try them at home has added to the rapid executions. He added that many who are detained by Iraq have potentially committed crimes against civilians in Iraq and Syria, but many of the details remains unclear due to a lack of transparency and accountability in the swift trial process.
"We don't know what exact crimes these individuals have committed because they are tried within 10 minutes and they are sent to be executed, and we've never had the opportunity to find out what it is that they did," he said, adding the U.S. and European Union should step up efforts to help the Iraqi judicial body in facing this "gigantic problem."
The six French men — identified as KÃ©vin Gonot, LÃ©onard Lopez, Salim Machou, Mustapha Merzoughi, Karam el-Harchaoui and Brahim Nejara — have 30 days to appeal their death sentences. They are among six other French citizens handed over to Iraq by the U.S.-backed Syrian Democratic Forces after their capture in the operation against IS.
France on Monday said it has informed its embassy in Baghdad to take "the necessary steps" to prevent Iraq from carrying out the sentences, reiterating its opposition to capital punishment while at the same time asking for accountability for IS crimes.
"France is opposed in principle to the death penalty at all times and in all places," the country's foreign ministry said in a statement.
Iraq began trying suspected IS local and foreign members shortly after declaring its final victory over IS in December 2017.
Earlier this month, the Iraqi judiciary said it had sentenced 514 suspected IS foreign fighters and acquitted 11 others since the start of 2018.
Iraqi officials in the past have said they will continue to hold the individual foreign fighters liable for damages in a fair process, rejecting accusations against the Iraqi judiciary.
In March, the speaker of Iraq's Council of Representatives said his country should be compensated monetarily as well.
"The Iraqi parliament will formally demand all countries whose citizens have either committed crimes inside Iraq [or] brought damage and harm to the Iraqi people ... bring those criminals to justice and compensate Iraq for the crimes they did to Iraq and the Iraqi people," Mohammed al-Halbousi told reporters in Washington.
Both the Iraqi government and U.S.-backed SDF have complained about the burden of holding hundreds of foreign fighters and their families after IS lost its self-proclaimed physical caliphate across Iraq and Syria.
Some experts say Iraqi courts could provide a window for Western countries as they grapple with the issue of what to do with IS foreign fighters.
The United States' current position is that jihadists ought to be tried in their home countries. But the United Kingdom and France have been reluctant to agree to such an arrangement.
"The official French statement condemning the death sentences given to these individuals was largely to soothe its EU allies who are against the death penalty," said Watheq al-Hashimi, director of the Iraqi Group for Strategic Studies, a Baghdad-based group that advises the Iraqi government.
While fundamentally against capital punishment, "in reality France would like to see Iraq try more French citizens who have joined IS," al-Hashimi added.
He said the trial of all IS foreign fighters could be a lengthy and expensive process requiring international assistance.
"Iraqi authorities are overwhelmed with the large number of IS foreign fighters detained in Iraq. Logistically, Iraq can't keep these individuals for a long time. For one thing, prisons are overcrowded. That's why Iraq has offered to try all IS foreign fighters for about $1.8 billion. But no response has been received yet from the international community."